Opinion writer

Republicans are moving to strip Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) of his committee roles, to punish him for suggesting that white nationalism and white supremacy have come in for undue condemnation. That’s a genuinely good development, as far as it goes.

But let’s not forget that Republicans are also digging in behind a government shutdown engineered by President Trump that is designed to force the enactment of key elements of King’s policy agenda, which in many respects is a real-world blueprint of that same white nationalism.

The quote that got King in trouble comes from a recent New York Times interview, in which he said: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

In the context of the shutdown, however, note that in that same interview, King also flatly stated that his immigration agenda is Trump’s immigration agenda. King recounted telling the president: “I market-tested your immigration policy for 14 years, and that ought to be worth something.”

King is absolutely right about this. Indeed, not only do both men’s immigration agendas overlap; both are animated by many of the same white-nationalist sentiments.

That immigration agenda is now the reason Trump continues to dig in behind a shutdown that has dragged into its fourth week with the near-total backing of the Republican Party.

King, of course, flatly rejects the idea that he’s a white nationalist or white supremacist. He claims he’s merely a “nationalist” and is concerned with defending our “culture” and “Western civilization.”

But King is also unquestionably a longtime adherent of “racial nationalism,” which historian Gary Gerstle’s great book on the topic defines as a nationalism that “conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by a common blood and skin color.” The underlying idea, expressed with varying explicitness, is that maintaining American or Western culture requires vigilance against demographic or racial tainting.

Scroll through King’s greatest hits, and this theme is everywhere. There’s King’s equating of “demographic transformation” with “cultural suicide.” Or his claim that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Or his assertion that, “if we let our birthrate decline below the replacement rate, we’re a dying civilization.” King dabbles in “Great Replacement” conspiracy theorizing, which holds that international elites are trying to undermine Western culture from within by engineering great hordes of (in King’s words) “ethnic migration.”

In King’s telling, this isn’t white supremacy or white nationalism. After all, he’d happily judge any individual by the content of his character. It’s just that if you allow in enough individuals from certain cultures, ours will be slowly rendered unrecognizable, infiltrated and destroyed from within. By sheer coincidence, the groups of individuals he often warns will have that impact — Muslim and Latino immigrants — also happen to be nonwhite. Also by sheer coincidence, King has a history of bigoted remarks about those same groups.

Trump also traffics in many of these same tropes. As Adam Serwer summarized, it isn’t just that Trump has overtly defended white nationalists. It’s also that Trump has:

described immigration as an infestation, warning that it was “changing the culture of Europe;” derided black and Latino immigrants as coming from “shithole countries,” while expressing a preference for immigrants from places like “Norway;” and generally portrayed non-white immigrants as little more than rapists, drug dealers, and murderers at every opportunity.

Trump’s closing ad in 2016, which juxtaposed visuals of George Soros with swarthy hordes flooding across the border, arguably carried coded, mainstreamed overtones of “Great Replacement” theory. More recently, Trump even suggested Soros was behind the migrant caravans, which he has described using words such as “infest.”

Trump has also claimed to be merely a “nationalist.” At a rally in October, Trump shouted, “I’m a nationalist, okay?,” while also saying, “you’re not supposed to use that word.” But the word “nationalist,” alone, isn’t controversial. If he really meant, “racial" or “white” nationalist, now that would be controversial. Thus, by expressing mock-contrition in this way, he signaled that this is what he meant without saying so. That’s how the code works.

Trump and King share many policy ideas about immigration. King has called for an end to birthright citizenship, wants deep cuts to legal immigration and was an early proponent of a massive border wall. Trump has called for the first, forced failed votes on the second, and is now shutting down the government to get the third. Trump may want deep cuts to legal immigration even more than the wall: Last year, he turned down $25 billion in wall money in exchange for legalizing “dreamers,” because it didn’t include such cuts.

Can we prove that Trump’s — and King’s — policy agenda is animated by white nationalism? Perhaps Trump only wants to cut legal immigration, slash refugee and asylum levels, and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible because he genuinely believes they are either a threat to working Americans’ job prospects or really do bring drugs and crime. Those are his oft-stated rationales. But they are regularly laced with absurd exaggerations and outright lies. Meanwhile, we know Trump is bigoted towards Muslims and Latino immigrants. Add it all together, and the economic and public-safety concerns unmistakably constitute an invented rationale, to substitute for the real one.

Does Trump actually believe the wall would an effective public-safety device? Maybe, but he also obviously views it as an important symbol to his supporters. A symbol of what, exactly? The answer is obvious: It’s a symbol of resistance to the country’s ethnic and demographic transformation. A symbol of resistance to the “Great Replacement.”

I doubt many congressional Republicans are white nationalists. Before Trump, many opposed legalizing the undocumented and some wanted to cut legal immigration, but the party was genuinely split on the issue. Since then, Republicans have moved into Trump’s camp, accommodating him the way center-right parties in Europe have made peace with rising right-wing populism’s anti-immigrant sentiment.

Now Republicans are all in with Trump’s government shutdown. And that shutdown is a last-ditch stand to realize the crowning symbol of the policy agenda of Steve King.

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Update: Gary Gerstle, the historian of the American racial nationalist tradition quoted above, emailed me a few thoughts about this piece. His remarks are worth quoting at length:

For some time, King’s far right comments have served a useful function for the GOP, in that they test the boundaries of acceptable speech on race, immigration, and minorities. In multiple instances, he has been successful in moving those boundaries, legitimating positions in the GOP that previously had been beyond the pale.

What is new in his latest comments is his explicit use of “white supremacy,” which, on account of the glow that still surrounds the heroic phase of the civil rights movement, is still forbidden in some GOP circles. But once again King is being the bad boy, testing, pushing, transgressing.  

Now, as you say, he has a kindred spirit in the White House. In the coming days, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump looks for a way to signal his approval of King to his supporters. And then the boundary may shift yet again.